However, it is intriguing when a company you don't associate with technology demonstrates a real affinity for it that shows up in good results. Enter EOG Resources Inc.
EOG, which reported results late Monday, remains an oil and gas exploration and production company. Yet on Tuesday morning's call, it took the unusual step of having Sandeep Bhakhri, its chief information and technology officer, provide a potted history of EOG's development of proprietary software tools, dating back to the 1990s.
In the latest iteration, developed over the past two years, EOG has moved to real-time collection and mobile dissemination of data, to speed up analysis and decision-making in drilling and fracking -- something Bhakhri describes as "having a control room in your pocket."
A CTO isn't the first specialized executive position you generally associate with oil -- chief engineer, perhaps, or maybe head of exploration. But, as I wrote here, one of the characteristics of the U.S. shale boom has been the application of manufacturing techniques, sensors and software to make sense of complex geological formations such as the Permian basin, cut well costs and speed up production. This task has only become more urgent as oil prices have fallen, but has also become easier as the cost of technology has continued to decline.
Hence, EOG's all-in cash costs per barrel of oil equivalent of output have fallen by more than a fifth since 2013's peak, despite production being 11 percent higher. Guidance for this year implies further efficiency gains:
On Tuesday's call, CEO William Thomas said he expects EOG this year can grow production by 18 percent and still cover its investment budget and dividends even if oil averages only $47 a barrel, down from the $50 level he spoke of on February's call, and versus an average price so far this year of $51 and change.
There's good reason to believe him. In the first quarter, EOG's $898 million of cash from operations was less than $150 million short of covering capex and dividends; less than $100 million if you count proceeds from disposals (as the majors do). In fact, on a trailing four-quarter basis, EOG is already living within its means:
Thomas was asked on Tuesday's call why EOG is raising production so aggressively with oil prices so low -- in other words, why not wait until prices go up in order to realize better returns from each well? There's a self-fulfilling element in there, of course: If companies such as EOG throttle back, then the shale recovery undercutting OPEC's efforts to raise prices would slow.
Leaving aside the fact that E&P companies are valued chiefly for growth, the CEO's answer was essentially that EOG is making decent money off its barrels even at current prices, and besides, there's more where they came from:
So we feel like the economics of the wells even at low oil prices is extremely strong and the right call for the shareholders [is] to continue to reinvest in those. We also have a very strong confidence ... that we can replace that inventory much, much faster than we're drilling it.
EOG's focus on technology gives it an enviable edge. What the mature oil industry should bear in mind, though, is that, unlike geology, technology has a way of migrating quite quickly.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
For example, at least for now, Tesla Inc. may hail from Silicon Valley, but it makes its revenue chiefly by building large metal machines in which people drive around. This is an "automotive" business.
I am assuming average realized prices of $48 and $20 a barrel for oil and natural gas liquids, respectively, and $2.10 per million BTU for natural gas.
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